Botanising on the Great Orme

The Great Orme isn’t quite an island, the town of Llandudno occupies the low-lying land between this spectacular limestone headland and the main part of north Wales.

The word Orme is thought to derive from a Norse word meaning a sea serpent, and this lump of rock apparently resembles the head of the creature. Perhaps that depends on which direction you approach it from. The photo below was taken from a boat to the west. 

The geology of the Great Orme is distinctive and affects the habitats found on the headland. These habitats support an abundant, varied and unique flora and fauna, and so most of the Great Orme has been designated a Special Area of Conservation (SAC). It is also managed as a Country Park and Local Nature Reserve by Conwy County Borough Council’s Countryside and Rights of Way Service to ensure that all of these natural elements can co-exist successfully with the thousands of people who visit the area each year. 

There is a nature trail, and a visitor centre on the top, with a cable car and a tram to take you there from the town. The Marine Drive (top photo) is a drivable narrow road (one-way system) all the way around the edge. For the history buff, there is evidence of neolithic burial chambers, a bronze-age mine, Roman and Medieval enclosures, as well as a Victorian-style resort and a modern interpretive centre. 

Personally, I just went for the flowers! 

The botanical delights of the Great Orme

For most of the summer the dominant colour in the grasslands is yellow. This is due mainly to the flowers of the common rock-rose Helianthemum nummularium. There is another helianthemum – hoary rockrose H. oelandicum on the limestone pavements, though this is much less conspicuous.

There are several very rare (in British terms at least) plants on the Great Orme, described here, but either I’ve not been there at the right time, or I haven’t looked in the right place! Probably the former, as there is a small botanical garden containing some of the rarer plants so they are easier to see.

Common rock-rose is the foodplant of the silver-studded blue butterflies on the Great Orme. See below.

The limestone grassland on the Orme is made up of various grass and sedge species, and a wide variety of wildflowers. It is of great botanical importance, and is one of the reasons for the Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designations on the Great Orme. Grasslands are maintained by grazing and browsing sheep, rabbits and goats. 

Limestone Cliffs The Great Orme’s cliffs are home to some very rare wildflower species. Smaller rocky outcrops and scree patches associated with the cliff habitat support small flowering plants and mosses. 

Bloody Cranesbill Geraniuim sanguineum provides splashes of colour along the Marine Drive – from the flowers in summer, and the leaves which turn bright red in autumn. Wild cabbage Brassica oleracea is a speciality of limestone and chalk sea-cliffs.

Although not strictly a plant of the limestone cliffs, small pockets of common butterwort Pinguicula vulgaris can be found where water keeps the soil wet in shallow hollows in the cliffs. This was along the Marine Drive on the shady north tip of the Great Orme. This carnivorous plant has slimy leaves to catch the insects on which they feed.

Limestone heath forms swathes of purple (heathers) and gold (gorse) in late summer. It usually occurs where there is a layer of clay over the lime. Like the grassland, it is an internationally important habitat because there are few places with the specific conditions it needs to survive. It requires cutting to boost regeneration, and to maintain the structural diversity of the shrubs.

Bell HeatherErica cinerea

Western GorseUlex gallii
Where horizontal limestone strata are exposed to the elements, it develops into limestone pavements. This is made up of grykes, the cracks within the rocks, and clints, which are the rocks surrounding these cracks. Leaf-litter and other debris accumulate in the grykes and other crevices, eventually breaking down to form soil. The buildings on the horizon include the visitor centre.

Seeds germinate, but as the soil is relatively shallow, there isn’t much nutrition for growth. Trees such as this yew Taxus baccata (right) do their best, but between the lack of nutrients, and the lack of shelter, they rarely manage to poke their heads above the level of the rock. Grykes are home to ferns and woodland flowers, whilst the clints are important for mosses and lichens (the orange and grey bits of rock surface in the photo). 

Spring sandwort Minuartia verna is a dainty, often downy, mat-forming perennial that likes dry rocky and sparsely grassy places. Wild Thyme Thymus polytrichus also likes dry grassy places, though not confined to limestone. It will find a foot-hold in a small crevice with a little soil in it. Some areas of pavement have been fenced to exclude grazing animals to see what will grow.

Butterflies

Silver-studded blue butterfly - female
Silver-studded blue butterfly – female. The silver studs are not always as obvious as in this photo

Common rock-rose is the foodplant of the silver-studded blue butterflies on the Great Orme. The subspecies here also differs from other Silver-studded blues by being smaller, and the females more colourful.

Like many other blue butterflies, the caterpillars depend on ants (in this case black ants) for protection while they grow.

The Kashmir Goats of the Great Orme

The feral Kashmir goats with their white, shaggy coats and impressive horns are the most spectacular mammals on the Great Orme. They are descended from a pair of goats from the Windsor Royal Herd, acquired by Major General Sir Savage Mostyn around 1880. The herd flourished and was released on the Great Orme 20 years later. The goats have been roaming wild ever since. 

The goats are useful for conservation grazing as they feed mainly on scrub such as gorse, brambles and hawthorn. Keeping these shrubs in check enables the less competitive wildflowers to flourish, and because of their climbing ability, goats can also graze in areas that sheep can not reach. However, by 2002 the number of goats had increased dramatically with the herd consisting of over 200 individuals. Many of the nannies (female goats) have been implanted with progesterone (a birth control hormone) over the last few years. The effect of these implants lasts for up to three years, therefore helping to decrease the birth rate. By 2008 the total number of goats recorded on the Great Orme was down to141 – well on the way to the target population of around 100 animals. 

As a result of the goats grazing on the Great Orme, a huge number of wildflowers thrive there including spiked speedwell, thrift and common rockrose, so the goats are actually important for the silver-studded blue butterfly, too.

Incidentally, these goats gained considerable notoriety during the first Covid Lockdown in 2020. With no visitors to the Great Orme, and few people out and about (only locals – no tourists), the goats came down into Llandudno and explored the streets and gardens.

The Great Orme Tramway provides an easy route from the town to visitor centre.

Birds on the Great Orme

The Great Orme isn’t really the place to go if you just want to watch birds. Yes, there are seabirds, mostly concentrated on the cliffs under the lighthouse, but you only see them from a distance. We did see fulmars and choughs on the cliffs along the Marine Drive, and a scattering of birds elsewhere over the Head. But really, you’d be better off at RSPB Conwy reserve to the east, or RSPB South Stack on Anglesey to the west.


Bookshop

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Resources

Website – Great Orme Country Park

Website – Visit Wales

Website – National Trust – owners of the farm on the Great Orme

Website – Llandudno.com – local tourist information

Website – Plantlife – some important plants on the Great Orme

This video by David Lewis on YouTube will give you more idea of the scenery.


Environmental volunteering

Environmental volunteering is a great way of getting to know more about a place or a species. It can be done quietly on a local level, or by joining a working group or a vacation.

Visiting Skomer Island in Pembrokeshire

Skomer Island off the coast of Pembrokeshire is a fantastic place for puffins and other seabirds, seals, plants, and a generally good day out. This article is about how to get there.

3 thoughts on “Botanising on the Great Orme

  1. Wales is definitely on our travel wish list. The Great Orme looks like an interesting place to visit when we are there. I would love to see the wild flowers on the limestone cliffs. Although hubby would go chasing sights of the Kashmir Goats.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I feel I’ve barely touched the surface here. The flowers are wonderful in spring and summer, the goats are there all year round, the old mine complex is fascinating, and the scenery spectacular. But then, there is so much more of Wales to see if time is limited – after 35 years here, I still haven’t seen all of it!

      Like

  2. I know very little about Wales, thank you for the introduction. Seeing the wildflowers would certainly be a wonderful experience, as would seeing the local Kashmir Goats.

    Liked by 1 person

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